Pascale Petit – Remembrance of an Open Wound

I wrote a close-reading article for the brilliant Prac Crit website on Pascale Petit’s Frida Kahlo-inspired poem, ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’. As the beautiful side-by-side design of the sign is something I can’t hope to replicate, I’ll simply post the link here.

Birmingham Library report

This report originally ran on Deutsche Welle.

When a new library opened in the UK city of Birmingham in 2013, many locals embraced it. It was hailed as a source of civic pride and an attraction for international visitors. But eighteen months on, this ambitious architecture project is in line for controversial spending cuts – a prospect faced by many libraries and other public services across the UK.

[audio http://radio-download.dw.de/Events/dwelle/dira/mp3/eng/32EE8270_1_dwdownload.mp3]

Whatever Happened to Verse Drama?

This article originally appeared on The Missing Slate.

 Mike Bartlett's King Charles III was "a block-busting hit which left skeptics flabbergasted." Is it time for a verse drama revival? Image via Mark Shenton

There was a time when poetry and drama were indissoluble. That time was most of literary history: from the theatre of ancient Athens until the English Civil War, the idea that some or all of a play might be written in verse was both conventional and uncontroversial. In sixteenth and seventeenth century England in particular, the use of iambic pentameter in plays was so prevalent that imagining the theatre of the period without verse is like imagining its politics without religion. And into this perfect storm came William Shakespeare, who became the most famous and respected verse dramatist who ever lived, and inadvertently ruined everything for everyone.

There was a time when poetry and drama were indissoluble. That time was most of literary history…

In any broad-brush summary, the history of verse drama in English since Shakespeare is a story of decline. Today, most new plays in verse are greeted by a Greek chorus of critical loathing. I have a database on my computer which might as well be called “Mean Things The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer Has Written About Modern Verse Plays”, which range from “fey and dated”, to “musty”, “dusty”, and at the far end of the spectrum, “freshly-squeezed bullshit“. As a result, theatres are often scared to commission them. AGuardian article last year described the curious case of a ‘major theatre’ whose publicity material nervously avoided any mention of the use of verse in their upcoming production.

That play was Mike Bartlett’s ‘King Charles III’, a block-busting hit which transferred to the West End and left skeptics flabbergasted: Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowksi wrote that a “Shakespearean-styled historical drama, written in blank verse and iambic pentameter’ about the royal family in 2014 ‘[o]bviously … sounds like a terrible idea,” before giving the play five stars.

Two of those words seem worth examining, for what they tell us about the critics’ preconceptions: “Shakespearean” and “obviously”. It’s clear that the sheer of level of adulation and cultural prestige enjoyed by Shakespeare is the elephant in the room. How could anything compare to the master of the form, and why would anyone be so foolhardy as to bother trying? To continue the animal analogy, daring to write a play in the same medium as the world’s most performed and quoted writer is like walking blindfold along a tightrope over a pit of lions.

Christopher Fry was a verse dramatist who enjoyed such acclaim in the 1950s he once had three plays simultaneously running in London’s West End. He confessed this very inhibition to one interviewer in the 1990s, thirty years after he had basically retired, having come to feel “more or less unwelcome”: “It was terribly damaging, horrifying really, to be compared to Shakespeare. It made everything so overwrought.” And Peter Oswald, the first contemporary playwright to be Writer-in-Residence at Shakespeare’s Globe, bemoaned how “you couldn’t have a script discussion without everything being compared to Shakespeare in some way or another which is really, for a writer, very atrophying and very hard.”

But Fry and Oswald weren’t the first playwrights to deal with this difficult inheritance. In 1678, John Dryden introduced All for Love – his taut, claustrophobic take on the Antony and Cleopatra story, where the classical lovers rage like trapped animals — by giving due props like a Restoration-era Kanye West. Shakespeare, he writes, who “began dramatic poetry amongst us, untaught by any” — which, by the way, isn’t true — “perform[ed] so much that in a manner he has left no praise for any who come after him”. In other words, he wrote the best verse plays OF ALL TIME.

Dryden was anxious not only about measuring up to Shakespeare, but to Ben Jonson and the Renaissance playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher, whose plays were then (he tells us) acted twice as frequently as those of both writers. This sense of barren ground was, he wrote, “a good Argument to us either not to write at all, or to attempt some other way.” The traditional symbol of poetic achievement, the laurel-wreath, couldn’t be achieved by imitation of the earlier style:“there is no bays to be expected in their Walks.”

Among the many inherited conditions from which verse plays suffer seems to be a tendency to fall from grace.

As such, many Restoration poets turned to writing plays in rhyming couplets, inspired by French dramatists like Racine. They viewed this model as the only form of verse drama “left free to us”, but it was short-lived and, frankly, hard work: one modern critic compared Dryden’s two-part blood-and-thunder marathon The Conquest of Granada to “being pelted with a succession of pellets” for ten rhyming acts.

Ludicrous though this play might be, it represents an attempt to do something — anything — different, and the rhyming couplet has its own rewards. It can set up, reward, and frustrate expectations, and when characters’ language is confined to neatly matching binary patterns, any departure from this strict scheme is an extremely charged moment: life bursting through the strait-laced seams.

That writers themselves viewed it as a cul-de-sac, however, is obvious enough: Dryden’s ‘All for Love’ signalled a return to blank verse, and Thomas Otway’s ‘Venice Preserv’d’, written in robust, lively pentameters in 1682, went on to enjoy spectacular success. Its stage life lasted well into the 19th century, competing with Shakespeare as a timeless classic of the genre, but most reviews of last year’s London revival began by telling us how rarely it was seen.

Among the many inherited conditions from which verse plays suffer seems to be a tendency to fall from grace. If you’ve ever seen a Dryden or an Otway live on stage, then congratulations and I’d love to hear from you. Some brave directors do intermittently attempt to breathe life back into work in a medium which most reviewers I’ve consulted delight in pronouncing dead (except for Shakespeare, who is of course immortal), but when it comes to revivals, verse drama is mostly striking by its absence. John Osborne comes to represent the theatre of the 1950s, while Christopher Fry is consigned to the dustbin of history.

And the result is a narrowing of scope, a kind of cultural amnesia; as the repertoire fills up with prose and realism, we lose sight of everything else that theatre could be, and once was, at the time when it produced some of its most enduring and memorable successes.

Could there be thousands of fantastic verse plays waiting in the wings of history? I suspect not — but how hard it is to answer the question knowledgeably and fairly tells its own story. These works have been shuffled off stage, out of the limelight, and into the footnotes of theatrical history. And if the door of the theatre is almost totally shut to poetry, you have to ask: why is Shakespeare still so firmly, so resplendently, inside? If the memorable shaping of his language into poetic lines isn’t what makes him different from any other writer — what is? And if that is the source of his appeal, then aren’t modern theatres — and modern audiences — missing a trick?

Now might be the time to declare a vested interest: I’m a poet who has just written his first verse drama. And given all of the above, despite my firm beliefs in the power of poetic theatre, I’m a little scared. Dryden’s right, after all: we can’t all be Shakespeare. But Shakespeare wasn’t the first writer to use iambic pentameter, or the last before it became indelibly associated with his name. So why should we have to be?

Others playwrights since Dryden have actively rejected the Shakespearean model, and it’s easy to see why. T S Eliot set about his own plays with a clear brief — “to avoid any echo of Shakespeare”— believing that “the rhythm of blank verse had become too remote from the movement of modern speech.” I don’t think it has, and I’m interested to see if anyone else agrees with me. From day to day, we live prosaic lives: but does the theatre have to simply reflect reality, or can it offer something different, stranger; a heightened version of our language and ourselves? Isn’t it high time we tried going blank again?

Jonathan Strange and the Friends of English Verse Drama

This article was originally published by Blogging Shakespeare.

 ‘This other magic, it will not do, sir.’

– Gilbert Norrell

‘But Shakespear’s Magick could not copy’d be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.’

– John Dryden

It’s entirely possible that my thesis is giving me tunnel vision, but the way characters discuss the ‘wild, cruel, medieval’ magic of the Raven King in the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell series is starting to seem eerily familiar to me. The terms being used are remarkably similar to what writers in the century and a half after the Restoration say about Shakespeare’s poetry.

The ‘magic of the modern age’ championed by Gilbert Norrell in the Regency world of the Susanna Clarke adaptation is defined by its refinement, its restriction, its unwillingness to ‘meddle’ with powerful but dangerous forces. His polite, precise, bookish discrimination is associated with Georgian Englishness, a particular view of national identity which his magic is intended to further in the Napoleonic wars.

Jonathan Strange, by contrast, is something of a Romantic: an untamed and untaught free agent, intent on exploration of the possibilities of the world and the self, the ‘mysteries and dreams of the past’, even if they lead him into madness. Strange draws his inspiration from the half-understood, controversial and dramatically unpredictable showmanship of a lost past master: the Raven King.

These positions are staked out as the show’s key opposition, between modern and ancient magic. But they don’t exist in a vacuum: they arise from a hundred and fifty years of debate about art, poetry, and the powers of the imagination in the real society which inspired the show. These debates – about what English literature, and verse in particular, ought to look like – take shape at least partly in reaction to the legacy left by Shakespeare.

John Dryden, in a Prologue to the version of the The Tempest he co-wrote with William Davenant in 1667, acknowledges his forebear’s talents as different in kind to those of other writers:

But Shakespear’s Magick could not copy’d be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.

His praise is mingled with a kind of admonition: such writing is no longer possible in his more enlightened times, and can only be justified by reference to Shakespeare’s elevated (and removed) status:

I must confess ’twas bold, nor would you now,
That liberty to vulgar Wits allow,
Which works by Magick supernatural things:
But Shakespear’s pow’r is sacred as a King’s.

Similarly, the Raven King’s abandonment of England is linked to the demise of an older form of magic. Norrell tells Strange – the vulgar wit whose liberty he repeatedly curbs – that the King’s loss ‘took the best part of English magic with him’, and it isn’t coming back: ‘such magic belongs to an England that is dead. And it is out of our control.’

Scattered throughout Dryden’s commentaries on Shakespeare and drama are concerns about belatedness, lost powers, and control. Praising the use of rhyme over blank verse, he argues that it is necessary because ‘it bounds and circumscribes the fancy. For imagination in a poet is a faculty so wild and lawless, that, like an high-ranging spaniel, it must have clogs tied to it, lest it outrun the judgment.’

Undeniably hilarious though this image of a tied-up (or shoe-wearing) dog might be, it shouldn’t blind us to Dryden’s message: wild and lawless forces can’t be allowed to roam free, because we don’t know what will happen. Shakespeare’s example, as an ‘untaught’ artist, is an especially dangerous one: it isn’t safe for him to be operating this kind of equipment. Dramatic theorist Thomas Rymer also described the ‘fancy’ as ‘wild, vast and unbridled’, and ‘art’ over the following century gradually came to be associated with restraining just this kind of unpredictable, free-flowing force. Playwrights such as Otway and Lee who tended towards older traditions were criticised as undisciplined, drunk on language to the point of madness.

‘Nat Lee, the Mad Poet’

As Scipio comments in James Thomson’s Sophonisba (1730), ‘Real glory/Springs from the silent conquest of ourselves’, and the rational conduct needed to build and manage a global empire was seen partly to spring from self-restraint of the messy, disruptive emotions. The old magic – the unconstrained, liberated imagination – might still be possible, but if so, Norrell says, it would be best for everyone if we ‘let it alone’.

There were moments of nostalgia among this self-assertion, but many works argue that the writers of the present century understand humanity, and poetry, far better than the primitive, barbaric playwrights of ‘the last age’. We have moved on too far to go back now, even if we wanted to. Jonathan Strange’s backward-looking impulse criticises just such aggressive modernity: ‘Surely magic should be magical? Surely magic is to dream? Where is the wonder of England’s past? Of magic’s golden age?’

But in 1714, Alexander Pope mocked Nicholas Rowe for writing his play Jane Shore ‘professedly in Shakspear’s style; that is, professedly in the style of a bad age.’ Faced with this level of cultural resistance, it is easy to imagine writers wondering: what exactly was so ‘bad’ about it? What were the powers and resources they were being denied in the name of propriety and modern English restraint?

By 1769, the tide was turning in favour of Shakespeare, led by David Garrick, the Drury Lane actor-manager who organised a Shakespeare Jubilee in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, complete with Garrick himself reciting an Ode in tribute to this ‘blest genius of the isle’. The association between Shakespeare and Englishness is starting to take shape, though it would go through many further stages of negotiation.

Garrick’s ‘Ode’ is keen to stress the benign nature of Shakespeare’s ‘magic art’. But his anxious caution to diminish the dangerous aspects of the great power of this writing in favour of its wholesome and morally improving qualities tells a slightly different story:

What tho’ with more than mortal art,
Like Neptune he directs the storm,
Lets loose like winds the passions of the heart,
To wreck the human form;
Tho’ from his mind rush forth, the Demons to destroy,
His heart ne’er knew but love, and gentleness, and joy.

‘What tho” indeed. There seems to be a genuine concern about what might happen

When our Magician, more inspir’d,
By charms, and spells, and incantations fir’d,
Exerts his most tremendous pow’r …

The greatest fanboy of the 18th century wishes that his poetry could even begin to imitate Shakespeare’s, but in describing the power that his idol possesses, something strange happens in the picture Garrick is painting:

O from his muse of fire
Could but one spark be caught,
Then might these humble strains aspire,
To tell the wonders he has wrought.
To tell,—how sitting on his magic throne,
Unaided and alone,

In dreadful state,
The subject passions round him wait;
Who tho’ unchain’d, and raging there,
He checks, inflames, or turns their mad career;
With that superior skill,
Which winds the fiery steel at will,
He gives the aweful word—
And they, all foaming, trembling, own him for their Lord.

With these his slaves he can controul,
Or charm the soul …

For a moment, the most renowned poet in English history doesn’t sound quite as benevolent and uplifting a national symbol as Garrick might hope. Sitting on his demonic throne, surrounded by foaming minions whose dark forces he can unleash at will, he doesn’t sound a lot like a friend to England, or even a friend of English magic. He sounds a lot more like the Raven King.

Speaking the Speech

This article was originally published on Blogging Shakespeare.

As Christopher Marlowe anachronistically says in Anonymous, six years after his historical death: ‘It’s difficult to write, isn’t it? After watching something like Hamlet. It eats at you – at your soul…’ And it’s especially difficult to write a verse play. I’m a PhD researcher at the Shakespeare Institute looking at the history of verse drama in the wake of Shakespeare, and one theme that comes up again and again, in critical reviews and the words of verse playwrights themselves, is a certain anxiety over measuring up.

Shakespeare’s verse plays, after all, are the reason people come from across the world to watch a horse-drawn cake parade through the crowded streets of a charming market town four hundred years after he wrote them, and light enormous Wicker Man-style effigies of his face. How could anyone else ever approach the same form of writing without a slight inferiority complex?

Over the last few months, however, I’ve immersed myself in exactly this cauldron as I put together my own verse play: a script called Free for All, which will make its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe. In this series of posts, I’ll be sharing some of my reflections on verse drama as a medium, from the twin perspectives of an impartial researcher and an increasingly fretful, overly invested writer, as the play moves towards its first performance.

Auditioning actors this week got me thinking about a field of debate unique to this kind of theatre: verse speaking. Even the existence of the phrase suggests a specific skill-set, an understanding that lines of poetry have a different aural character from chunks of prose. We talk about pace, diction, and so on as actors, directors and reviewers, but we never argue about ‘prose speaking’ as a concept. And yet, as far as I can tell, a good proportion of what’s currently being spoken in theatres doesn’t sound very much like verse. It just sounds like… speaking.

To write this in 2015 will make me seem, like the Doctor, hundreds of years older than I actually look. Of course, Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is designed to capture the rhythms of natural speech (the key word being ‘capture’, as opposed to ‘liberate’). But I wonder if a focus on the deftness of his poetry has obscured everything about it which is unnatural, and whether these artificial constraints aren’t exactly what raises it above ordinary conversation into the realms of memorable art.

One of the most acclaimed Shakespearean performances of the year has been Maxine Peake’s Hamlet. I loved her livewire energy, and clearly a slightly delirious sense of speed and attack was central to her reading of the role. But sometimes, as the actor barrelled through key speeches like a runaway train, individual words and line endings fell by the wayside. The play was becoming all Peake and no trough.

And much of this feeling was to do with verse speaking: I felt that by spending a little more time observing the architecture of the text, Peake’s Prince could have found room to pause and think, and to let her language expand beyond the fury which impelled it. It’s hard when discussing this topic not to fall into the sonorous traps of the ‘voice beautiful’, but what I’m talking about is using the verse as a counterweight – an equal and opposite tension to that which is generated in Hamlet’s seething brain, reflecting and contributing to the character’s sense of confinement and restriction in the Danish court. (For comparison, set one of his wrought verse soliloquies against the expansive, baggy prose of a character like Toby Belch, who refuses to ‘confine [him]self within the modest limits of order.’)

Soon after the Hamlet live-screening, I caught Jasper Britton as Barabbas in the RSC’s The Jew of Malta (to return to both Marlowe and cauldrons) and was struck by the difference. Britton worked with the verse to find nuance and progression, showing us a character assessing and calculating his next thought or move at the end of each line. Admittedly, Marlowe’s writing makes it easier to separate experience into discrete ten-syllable units, and part of the skill in working with Shakespeare is using the verse itself as punctuation when the words, written as prose, might tell a different story. But it still took Britton’s methodical work to make sure we knew where we were within the speeches, each foot and line building on the foundations of the last, and this allowed us to see the character growing and changing.

The approach to Shakespeare’s text which I’m favouring is quite an unfashionable one – but then, there’s nothing more unfashionable than poetry, and nothing more integral to how Shakespeare works. And fixed lines and line-breaks, in the vast majority of cases, are the only thing poetry has which prose doesn’t and can’t. By ignoring these, we lose sight of the way in which the text has structured its characters’ experience and the movement of their minds. We lose the thread which, however strongly an individual speech might push against it, stitches the delicate world of Shakespeare’s verse plays together.

How to approach modern verse drama (and why almost no one does)

Setting yourself up as a verse dramatist in 2015 is a risky business. As dangerous, old-fashioned professions go, writing a play in iambic pentameter isn’t quite up there with chimney-sweeping. But since the hopefully-fragrant retirement of the last gong-farmers, who carried ‘night soil’ out of Tudor privies, few lines of work have attracted as much or disgust or pity – at least, at the hands of modern theatre critics.

As a poet who is taking his first verse play to the Edinburgh Fringe, I wanted to try to find out why this is. How did the form of writing in which the world’s most performed, most respected playwright – Shakespeare – made his name, come to be considered a tedious, pretentious ‘blind alley‘ by critics like Charles Spencer? And what, if anything, can I do to stop people saying the same about me? Having read a lot of verse plays – and a lot of critical reviews of verse plays – I’ve found a few common factors which I tried to avoid when writing my own script, Free for All.

  1. Don’t try to be Shakespeare

While no playwright is more quoted than Shakespeare, critics are extremely suspicious of any attempt by a writer to use the medium in which his memorable lines were so carefully crafted. It’s like some kind of proprietary software: Iambic Pentameter.

Unless – like Mike Bartlett’s unusually successful King Charles III – you’re writing an explicit pastiche, it’s best not to try to sound like the Bard. Shakespeare used a heightened, compressed form of contemporary language – and so should you. ‘Thee’s and ‘thou’s are out, unless you want to write something like Keats’s dreadful Otho the Great, which features a lot of people keeling over and shouting ‘Amaze!’ all the time.

  1. But don’t try too hard not to

That heightened language is nevertheless one of the main reasons people still perform Shakespeare today. One contemporary verse dramatist, Glyn Maxwell, compares his admiration of the writer to a young football fan watching Pele: ‘Does he say, “What the hell, forget it, I’ll get a job at McDonald’s”, or does he say, “Oh I want to be him, I want to do that”?

‘Poetic’ speech can quickly become affected, but it gives you the scope to move away from realism. Iambic pentameter can and does expertly mimic normal speech, but it can do a lot of other things as well: if your characters aren’t talking exactly like real people, your world doesn’t need to behave exactly like the real world. Our play starts with a rhyming ghost. You’re allowed to do that.

  1. Metre is your friend

Like Liam Neeson in Taken, writing in iambic verse means you have a very particular set of skills. You can do things which prose writers can’t. You can use every ten-syllable line as a miniature version of the whole play – a struggle for power, for focus, for control. Every time a character starts talking, she’s only got five beats and time is running out – this tight constraint means any interruption is charged with larger meaning.

And variations from the norm – an extra syllable, a limping line, a sudden shift into prose – are a breach of your basic contract with the audience. They let them know that something’s up – that a character is changing tack, or gearing up, or breaking down. If you start with rules, you can have much more fun breaking them.

  1. Tell a story

Eliot thought it would be easier for poets to learn to write plays than for dramatists to pick up verse, but Bartlett’s King Charles III is full of surprising shifts and reversals of power, at the level of line and scene. The narrative and dramatic structure is genuinely thrilling, and the verse – though workmanlike at times – adds to the sense of grandeur and gravitas.

All the tools carried over from his prose plays are still in evidence, unlike Eliot’s plays which (while their language is often brilliant), are weakened by foreknowledge: the dogmatic sense that we already know everything which is going to happen. Verse lends itself to long speeches, and these can slow things down. The language can’t control the play, but it can help you create all the things which will: tension, dynamics, plot and character.

  1. Shake it off

Verse drama is a lonely furrow to plough, and sometimes it will feel as if everybody’s throwing rocks at you. Glyn Maxwell wrote a harrowing diary which starts with joy at the production of his first play at The Globe, and ends with him feeling ‘worthless’ and ‘poisoned’. Peter Oswald described his work for the same theatre as ‘a mostly pretty desperate and grinding apprenticeship which apprenticed me to write plays that no other theatre wants to stage.’ The Restoration poet-playwright Thomas Otway, author of Venice Preserv’d, died aged 33 from choking on a piece of bread. Don’t do that.

Instead, take heart from the example of Christopher Fry. At one point in the 50s, before the earthquake of Look Back in Anger, Fry had three verse plays running simultaneously in London’s West End. When the climate changed, feeling ‘unwelcome’, he retired to Chichester. A spate of newspaper articles in the 80s and 90s repeatedly express their surprise that he was still alive, and remarkably serene about the whole experience, telling Dominic Cavendish ‘In literature in general, it would be very funny if you only had prose. Surely the life of the theatre must be the same. There should be room for everyone.’

As Taylor Swift reminds us, haters gonna hate. But luckily, she’s got a rhyme for that.

My First Night of the Proms

When I told a friend I had been booked to read poetry at the Royal Albert Hall, his suggestion that I ask the staff where they kept Hitler’s testicle might indicate something of my own complicated relationship with high culture. My first response to the BBC Proms’ kind invitation to perform at a venue so prestigious that my family had heard of it (as opposed to, say, a room above a pub in Farringdon), and to have the results broadcast on Radio 3, was barely-trammelled delight. My second was blind social and sartorial panic. Would I need a garment with a buttonhole? What if I accidentally ask for a fish-knife?

I spent four years studying in Oxford, which implies a certain comfort with grandeur and formality. I did, however, spend half of the last one chin-deep in post-war social realism, reading and empathising with novels such as Larkin’s Jill, in which a gauche provincial undergraduate nearly passes out when a rich female acquaintance helps him put on a bow-tie. The signifiers of success and status are vexed and various, and I had never attended a Prom in my life.

As it turned out, a shirt and trousers was more than adequately-formal garb; I left my suit jacket draped over my chair, a relief even in the relative cool of the Elgar Room. (One slightly less ball-focussed friend believed I was taking the stage in the main auditorium.) Watching the Prom itself from the demotic discomfort of the Gallery, whether craning our necks over the balconies and propped up against the hard stone wall, was in itself instructive: among the closed-eyed men in shorts and baggy T-shirts and the young couples lying supine on the floor, engaged in light-to-medium petting, most of my ideas about decorum soon went sailing out of the window towards the Albert Memorial. If this was the audience I had to read for, perhaps I had nothing to fear after all.

Ducking out before ‘Bolero’, I reconvened with Tir Eolas, the classically-trained folk band with whom I was sharing the bill. The evening’s compere, Georgia Mann, took us through our tightly-regimented setlist (margin of banter: limited) and informed me I would be introduced with a witticism taken from this very blog, which had, I realised, lain un-updated for an uncomfortably long time. The path to the stage was littered with potential trip-hazards. I was deeply concerned I would accidentally say ‘fuck’ on the radio, collide with the adjacent musician’s double-bass, or make an awkward reference to a dictator’s genitals. If you tune in at 22:10 on Tuesday, you will discover I did none of these things.

In fact, the performance went off with an almost dreamlike smoothness, the post-Prom patrons greeting my opening broadside against corporate philanthropy and subsequent digression into the vagaries of medieval travel literature with what seemed like genuine enjoyment. I’ve rarely had so much fun on-stage – not least in the final segment, where I indulged my scarcely-private Leonard Cohen fantasies by reading a poem over a responsive underscore cooked up in only thirty minutes earlier that day by the scarily-adept Tir Eolas.

I was thrilled to hear ‘Magician’s Assistant’ being brought to life by a whole array of tinkling dulcimers and evocative effects. Humouring my vague understanding of concepts such as ‘major’, ‘minor’, ‘arpeggio’ and ‘music’, the band created an alternately woozy and glittering soundscape that mirrored the tension and release of the poem’s romantic negotiations. It may be that participating in the musical process helped to alleviate some of my own Proms paranoia. At any rate, if this happened at every reading – suit or no suit – I could probably get used to it.

*

The poem on which I collaborated with Tir Eolas, ‘Magician’s Assistant’ is soon to be published in The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse. This post initially featured on the Huffington Post website.

Four-Coned Ruth

A poem about how people sometimes see things differently. Originally published by Valley Press / Dead Ink, and inspired by Radiolab.

Four-Coned Ruth

Ruth was a tetrachromat
in a small town by the sea,
which meant she saw a colour more
than her neighbours’ eyes could see;

or rather, more than a colour more
than the common red, blue, green –
she saw the shades those mixtures made
and the secret shades between.

So: red for Ruth had a glint of green,
green was a grade of red,
and yellow grew from the bluest blue
like flowers from the dead.

If in every lie lay an anagram
which assembled, spelt the truth –
that was the way the world conveyed
its light to four-coned Ruth.

But Ruth kept quiet, mostly –
in that small town by the sea
one didn’t boast about the almost
extra-sensory.

See, what was known was what was felt,
and what was seen made sense,
and sense was shared. People were scared
of Ruth. She made them tense.

By implication, all their lives
they’d seen the rainbow wrong,
or not enough. If her cones were buds
on wagging small-town tongues

water would taste like sparkling wine,
sweet wine like dry vermouth;
you would be thirsty, fit to burst
if you were four-coned Ruth.

Let’s say she took a lover, Ruth,
in that small town by the sea –
and for argument’s sake, and to up the stakes,
let’s say that it was me –

and suppose her skin was as sensitive
as her irises to light,
then twice as much. Dark doubles touch;
we only met at night.

Then imagine a feeling, next to which
the times all tension spilled
to a shiver so pure it verged on air
would seem like a dentist’s drill

to a patient without anaesthesia,
turned in a rotten tooth –
let’s say my body felt that way
in the arms of four-coned Ruth.

Or so she’d tell me, when we met
in that small town by the sea,
where the sky would spit, and us within it,
iridescently.

But Ruth grew tired, eventually,
of the limits of my view –
I guess we saw things differently,
as lovers sometimes do,

and lasers can’t correct all defects
– trust me, friends, I’ve tried –
or even most; but come close.
Closer. Look into my eyes:

if you believe, for confirmation,
if you don’t, for proof.
You’d see what’s hid beneath these lids
if you were four-coned Ruth.

Personal Injury

A few months ago I forgot to renew the domain for this site – richardtobrien.com – and the URL was taken over by a Los Angeles-based personal injury lawyer. In an attempt to re-inject some poetry into the pretty bleak and sinister text now replacing my site, here’s a found poem created from what’s written there.

Personal Injury

No matter where,
in the State of California
you have been injured.

Of course, there is no correct amount.
It all depends
on how you calculate it:

pain and suffering,
and even emotional distress,
if you did have that –

that’s even better.
Of course, there is no correct amount,
most of the time.

If you make a mistake,
it cannot be undone,
most of the time.

Your violation
is what caused the accident,
most of the time.

Other times,
it is not so specific,
which is also dangerous.

No matter why you stopped,
no matter where
you are on your own,

most of the time.
If someone hits you from behind
that doesn’t mean that

you are going to get paid.
You should also keep in mind
your own recklessness.

You will have to go after
the driver personally.
You will have to start talking.

You don’t have to wait until the morning.
Even if it’s night now,
we are awake.

Why us?

You don’t want to do this alone.